News: Breaking barriers, building bridges
SOUTHWEST ASIA – At a time when suspicion characterizes relationships between nations in the Middle East, small groups of Air Force Security Forces members, such as the Viper 1 team, work diligently to build a solid relationship with the local community, strong enough to last for the foreseeable future.
“At one level, Viper 1’s mission is to execute a five-kilometer perimeter patrol of the base,” said Tech. Sgt. Robert Daniel, 386th Expeditionary Security Force Squadron, Viper 1 non-commissioned officer in charge. “We are in charge of listening post/observation posts, sector sweeps, unexploded ordnance sweeps and interacting with the host nation military. But, at another level, it is a larger mission of contact with the local population.”
Between the months of October and March, the locals set up campsites scattered throughout the desert on open land. They don’t always reside there, but they use the land for farming or ranching.
“Partially it is a business for some,” said Daniel. “It is no different from in the states. We have ranches where we raise horses, sheep, goats, turkeys and ducks. It is exactly the same here.”
But there are many who camp because of tradition or recreation.
“They also have Diwaniya, which is a social setting,” said Daniel. “All of their friends come out and meet and have dinner and break bread with each other. It is the same as in the states when we have our friends over. They talk about politics. They talk about religion. They talk about current events, and they talk business.”
The camps are worked by third country nationals, who reside there full-time. Their roles include maintaining the animals, cooking and cleaning.
Typically, the owner will also have a house in the city and will return home each night. This tradition reflects the customs of the nomadic Bedouins who farmed the desert centuries ago.
Each night the Viper 1 team, made up of four vehicles and eight to 12 airmen, visit local campsites.
“A typical day for Viper 1 is we come in, do changeover and conduct out sector sweeps to make sure no one is in our area,” said Daniel. “Afterwards, we initiate our LPOPs and travel around to different spots within the area, so we can control key terrain. Once that is complete, usually in the evening, we start doing the counter-insurgency mission piece and head out to the camps. The locals don’t come out during the middle of the day because it is generally hot, so we have to wait till the evenings.”
Each day brings new opportunities to make connections.
“The first thing we do is establish contact by showing up to the camp itself,” said Daniel. “We talk to the TCNs that work there because the owners live in the surrounding villages and towns and only come out in the evenings. We try to get the owner's name and phone number. Then we leave and have our linguist call the owner and explain to them who we are, what we do and why we are out here.”
The first call, more times than not, leads to a blossoming friendship.
“Through that communication, usually we get an invite back,” said Daniel. “The first time we visit, we go through the customs of drinking chai and coffee. Usually there is a dinner involved, and that is pretty much the start of the relationship.”
Daniel, who has been frequenting the sites for months, was even given a name: Abo Jack. In Arabic, "Abo" means “father of.”
Traditionally, once a male has his first son, he will take on the first name Abo, and his second name will be that of his son.
The benefits of building these relationships are never-ending.
“It’s a force multiplier,” said Daniel. “We only have a certain amount of folks that work the patrol ,and if we relied on that, we wouldn’t get as much done. With the locals, instead of having a small amount of eyes, we have a plus up to hundreds of sets. It also builds trust.”
The team now has a home-field advantage.
“They know the area. They know their neighbors. They know all the people. They have been here their whole lives, and if anyone different moves into the area, they are going to call us,” said Daniel. “We make sure they know our names and how to reach us. That way, they can call us and let us know 'Hey, something isn’t right with the new guy in town.'”
The security benefits are important, but the contact builds a lasting bond that eventually may be more useful.
“This is a great job because it really changes your mindset as far as anything you have in your head previously about what to expect from the Arab culture,” said Daniel. “When you come here, you actually see the real people. It is not like what you see on TV.”
"It helps you get past the surface, and you actually get to know them on a personal level, and you learn that there is not really that much a difference between our culture and their culture, if you really sit down and think about it," he added. "We are bridging the gap between two different cultures. It is just as enlightening for us as it is for them because they only know a certain amount about Americans."
“Whenever we go out there they don’t know what to expect,” said Daniel. “They learn that there is not a lot of difference between us and them. It is a learning experience on both ends. It is nice to see the light go on that we can all get along and we can all work together.”
One of the locals Daniel has grown extremely close to is Abo Talal, whom he plans to have as a guest to his home in Texas in the near future.
“Abo Talal and five of his family members were imprisoned for seven months,” said Daniel. “The United States Marines liberated them from prison.”
Abo Talal has a great fondness for military members because of those events.
“I welcome any people that are brought to my camp,” said Abo Talal. “We like the people that come to our camps. It is a tribe tradition, if you enter into any house; the owner of the house is going to be responsible for and to protect you and your life. You will be safe.”
He also speaks highly of Americans.
“Americans are kind and nice people,” said Abo Talal. “They are not like what we hear at times that Americans don’t like the people of the Middle East. They [are] actually very friendly and always try and help us.”
He is not the only local to share these views.
“I like the people from America. They are friendly. They like us,” said Abo Abd Al Rahman. “We have a good time, and we appreciate what they did for us. We will never forget that.”
He knows how important these new relationships are.
“If you see the area around us, you will see we need them, and they need us in order to keep the world safe and nice,” said Abo Abd Al Rahman.